Alexander McDonnell

Edward Winter

(2004, with updates)

No picture of Alexander McDonnell has ever been found, but many chess luminaries have investigated and debated how Alexander McDonnell’s surname should be spelt, and here we review the discussion.

A letter dated 27 April 1842 from William Harris of Richmond appeared on pages 11-12 of the 1843 Chess Player’s Chronicle:

‘A few days ago I visited that interesting “City of Tombs” Kensall [sic] Green Cemetery, for the purpose of discovering and paying my homage to the graves of those two lamented sons of Caissa – M‘Donnell and La Bourdonnais. After a long search I succeeded in finding that of the former, in a sequestered spot at the North-west corner of the cemetery, near a shady plantation of evergreens; it is a modest-looking grave, covered by a plain stone slab, on which is inscribed:

“Sacred to the Memory of
(Formerly of Belfast,)
Who died 14th September, 1835,
Aged 37 years.”

… Not far from thence, on the southern side of the cemetery, and near the chapel, is the grave of his great rival, the late Chess-King of Europe – La Bourdonnais; this is a very humble affair, consisting merely of a common head and foot stone, bearing this simple inscription:

The celebrated Chess Player,
Died 13th December, 1840,
Aged 43 years.”’

The above information was repeated in the Chess Monthly, November 1859, pages 357-358, with the same spelling Kensall (instead of Kensal) but without any mention of Harris or the Chronicle.

When the 1846 Chronicle (pages 250-251) quoted a letter written by A.M. in 1834, it put McDonnell. The following volume (pages 362-363) gave two of his ‘unpublished games’, using the spelling M‘Donnell. Two further letters from him were published, courtesy of George Walker, on pages 13-14 of the January 1860 Chess Monthly, both being signed ‘Alex. M’Donnell’.

As shown above, within four years the Chess Player’s Chronicle had employed the spellings MacDonnell, McDonnell and M‘Donnell, and subsequent writers took their pick. In A History of Chess (Oxford, 1913) H.J.R. Murray gave MacDonnell, explaining in a footnote on page 880: ‘I follow the spelling of the name on MacDonnell’s tombstone at Kensal Green’. (As will be seen below, he later regretted the decision.) His posthumous book A Short History of Chess (Oxford, 1963 – but written in 1917 and updated by B. Goulding Brown and H. Golombek) had McDonnell.

A feature on pages 132-133 of CHESS, 14 December 1935 began as follows:

‘Saturday, 14 September marked the centenary of A. McDonnell’s death but, to the best of our knowledge, in the whole of chess literature, only one person noted the fact or paid any tribute to the memory of one of the greatest players Britain has ever produced. This was Mr H.W. Hawks [in the Newcastle Chronicle] …’

CHESS then quoted Hawks’ article, which repeated the Kensal Green inscriptions as given in the Chess Player’s Chronicle of 1843, but with MacDonnell now appearing as McDonnell.

Before the CHESS item the BCM (October 1935, page 460) had published its own brief notice:

‘14 September was the centenary of the death of Alexander M’Donnell, who was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Five years later his great rival, Louis La Bourdonnais, was also interred in the same cemetery. M’Donnell was the greatest English [sic] player of his time, and his matches created world-wide interest. A correspondent tells us that he finds the grave in excellent condition, the stone above it is very substantial, and about 20 years ago it was restored by the Good Companions Chess Problem Society, Philadelphia, Pa., USA.’

About a dozen years later the BCM hosted a debate about the spelling of the master’s name, after the November 1947 issue (pages 369-370) had given a game against Evans won by ‘MacDonnell’. The following appeared on page 13 of the January 1948 BCM:

‘Mr Goulding Brown points out that the name of de Labourdonnais’ great opponent was spelt McDonnell, and thus he himself spelt his name on the title page of his book on Economics. The mistake has probably become common because of the similarity of the name of the Rev. G.A. MacDonnell. Even Bird, on page 15 of his Chess History and Reminiscences gives both versions of the spelling to the older player.’

It might have been added that Bird also gave the wrong year of death (1837 instead of 1835).

On page 66 of the February 1948 BCM R.N. Coles responded:

‘Mr Goulding Brown raises a point of some small importance in the January issue. It is preposterous that we do not know how to spell the surname of one of our six greatest native chess masters. It has been quoted variously as McDonnell, MacDonnell and M’Donnell. The evidence he now adduces in favour of the first is very strong, but his cursory dismissal of the second as a mere confusion with a later player is hardly justified, for the second spelling is used on the tombstone, and tombstones are not usually erected except by someone who has been closely connected with the deceased during his lifetime. It would be interesting to know whether any readers can produce any other evidence of value, and particularly in connection with the third alternative spelling.’

The exchange of correspondence was rounded off by H.J.R. Murray on pages 82-83 of the March 1948 BCM:

‘Mr Goulding Brown is right as to the spelling of McDonnell’s surname, but his contemporaries often went wrong. Lewis wavered between M’Donnel and Macdonnel; Greenwood Walker used M’Donnell; George Walker M’Donnell and McDonnell, and finally started the legend that it was MacDonnell on his tombstone, and the Dictionary of National Biography followed suit. I regret to say that I adopted this in my History of Chess when I found it in the DNB. In 1934 I discussed the matter with J. Keeble and suggested to him that he should try and solve the question as he enjoyed this kind of research, and on 8 September 1934 he wrote me the following postcard from London:

“I have been in London earlier than I expected. Have today (Saturday) seen Alexander McDonnell’s grave. It is correctly engraved Mc, a small c with a dot under it. The inscription is wholly in capital letters. The cemetery books also record him as McDonnell. I could not find Labourdonnais’ grave.”’

In the above quote from Keeble the letter c was raised, with the dot just below it. The item also specified that the site was ‘a substantial stone lying down, about 18 in. thick’ and had the following reproduction of the text:


It will be noted that in the 1948 discussion nobody referred to ‘MacDonnell’ being reported as the tombstone spelling by William Harris in the early 1840s. Detailed information about the location of the graves of both McDonnell and Labourdonnais was given by David Hooper on pages 514-515 of the November 1986 BCM.

Another writer who became interested in the spelling controversy was C.J.S. Purdy. Two items in his magazine Chess World in 1955 (January, page 11 and November, page 236) added nothing new, but a significant article entitled ‘Alexander M‘Donnell, MacDonnell, McDonnell’ appeared on pages 170-171 of the August 1958 issue. Extracts are given below:

‘Some problems have little or no practical importance but gradually accumulate human interest because many people tackle them and fail. When at last someone succeeds, it is something. Mount Everest.

… The mystery has now been solved – and on the initiative of an Australian 12,000 miles from the scene of the crime. He is that indefatigable chess antiquary of Melbourne, Mr M.V. Anderson, possessor of the biggest chess library in the Antipodes. He appointed as local sleuth his nephew Mr E.J. Watson, who proved much more efficient than any of the antiquaries who have tackled the problem before. Above all, he unearthed a signature – two, in fact.

First of all, Mr Watson consulted – in the British Museum Library – the title-pages of all the books and pamphlets on political economy of which A.M. was the author. The titles are lengthy, and we content ourselves with listing the ways the author’s name is spelt, together with date of publication and the name of the publishers.

1826, M‘Donnell (John Murray)
1826, M‘Donnell (John Murray)
1827, M‘Donnell (John Murray)
1828, MACDONNELL (Murray).
(This pamphlet is in the Public Library, Sydney, and Mr F.M. Dunn showed us the title-page some years ago; the style is capital letters for everything, and this could have determined the spelling, i.e. because it looked the nicest when only capitals were used. Ed.)
1830, M‘Donnell (Ridgway)
1830, M‘Donnell (Effingham Wilson)
1833, McDonnell (Effingham Wilson).

The 1833 pamphlet (in the form of a letter) ends with the (printed) words, ‘Your obedient Servant, A. McDonnell’. This would more or less compel Messrs Effingham Wilson to use that spelling on the title page.

So far it is quite evident that A.M. sanctioned the spelling of his name in three different ways. Did he himself sign it in different ways, like Shakespeare? The answer is yes. Sir John Murray of Messrs John Murray & Co. lent Mr Watson a letter from A.M. dated 23 December 1825, and by courtesy of Mr Anderson a photostat copy is before us. The signature reads:


Alexr. M‘Donnell.

That was 1825. Subsequently, the Minute Books of the West Indian Committee of Merchants, of which A.M. was secretary, showed the name as McDonnell but not in the form of a signature.

Finally, we come to A.M.’s will of 2 September 1835. A photostat of the relevant portions is also before us. The will begins, in a scrivener’s copperplate hand, ‘This is the last will and testament of me Alexander MacDonnell’ and winds up with, ‘In witness whereof I the said Mac Donnell ….’ (with this time a clear space after the ‘Mac’). BUT the signature reads:


Alexr. McDonnell.

He died two weeks later, so it is fair to assume that whatever variant of his name he may have preferred at one time or another, he died Alexander McDonnell. There is no birth certificate, as civil registration of births in Ireland only began in 1864. In any case, a birth certificate is only conclusive for given names, in this case Alexander. Nobody is bound to spell his surname the way his father did, and it is rather the last spelling than the first that matters.

The spelling on the tombstone follows the signature on the will – McDonnell.’


From David McAlister (Hillsborough, Northern Ireland):

‘Since I was first able to spell my name (in the 1950s) I have considered M plus a small c (Mc) to be interchangeable with M plus an apostrophe (M’). A friend who has an excellent knowledge of the Ulster Scots heritage has confirmed that until probably about 50 years ago M’ was frequently used (particularly in print) to represent Mc. My cuttings of Belfast News-Letter chess columns from the 1930s to the 1950s suggest that it was the standard rendition. Today, M’ has fallen out of use.

When I sign my name the small c is aligned with the top of the other letters, so that it actually looks quite like an apostrophe. I would therefore suggest that McDonnell and M’Donnell are in reality the same. MacDonnell, however, is a true variation in spelling.

The other issue is the full stop under the small c. Having checked this with my expert friend, I think that the full stop is decorative in nature or emphasizes the fact that the small c should appear at the top of the line of characters.’


Below is the only photograph of McDonnell’s grave known to us. It was published on page 202 of “Our Folder” (The Good Companion Chess Problem Club) 1 May 1921:



John Townsend (Wokingham, England) writes:

‘In Bell’s Life in London, 13 November 1842 George Walker recalls in a reply to a correspondent that Alexander McDonnell (1798-1835) had played an unusual variation of Alekhine’s Defence:

“We have seen McDonnell as his first move, his adversary having begun first, and pushed out king’s pawn two, commence with king’s knight thus to bishop’s third, courting his opponent’s pushing king’s pawn on him, and then coolly retiring knight home, “biding his time”. He used to say his adversary’s king’s pawn was weakened, by being thus prematurely advanced.”

This commentary on the variation 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Ng8 suggests that McDonnell possessed some understanding of what we would now regard as hypermodern principles of play.

I note your feature article on Alekhine’s Defence. Had Allgaier already explained any such principles in the course of his analysis?’

Below is the passage by Walker referred to, from page 2 of the 13 November 1842 edition of Bell’s Life in London:


Mr Townsend notes that the item can also be viewed at the Chess Archaeology website as part of the Jack O’Keefe Project. (The Project, we add, represents an astounding amount of work of great value.)

The answer to our correspondent’s question about Allgaier is that no explanation of principles was offered when the moves 1 e4 Nf6 were given in Tafel 9 of his book Neue theoretisch-praktische Anweisung zum Schachspiele (Vienna, 1819):


Larger version

The relevant notes (30, 31 and 32) can be read in the Google Books scan of the work, on page 108.

The connection between Alexander McDonnell and hypermodernism is intriguing.


From page 33 of CHESS, October 2016:


This is another (gross) case of mistaken identity. As noted in our feature article on Alexander McDonnell, no picture of him is known. The above illustration in CHESS, given in C.N. 3974 and in Excuses for Losing at Chess, was the frontispiece to Chess Life-Pictures by George Alcock MacDonnell (London, 1883):



Our correction was reported on page 43 of CHESS, November 2016.

Further to the reference above to an 1834 letter from McDonnell published on pages 250-251 of the Chess Player’s Chronicle, 1846, the full text is given here:



The moves discussed: 1 e4 c5 2 f4 Nc6 3 c3 e6 4 Nf3 d5 5 e5 f6 6 Na3 Nh6 7 Nc2 Qb6 8 d4 cxd4 9 cxd4 Bd7 10 h4 Rc8 11 Be2 Bb4+ 12 Kf2 O-O 13 Kg3 fxe5 14 fxe5 Nf5+ 15 Kh3 h5 16 g4 hxg4+ 17 Kxg4.

Page 245 of Amusements in Chess by Charles Tomlinson (London, 1845) stated that the recipient of the letter was ‘Mr Walker’.

Another letter, written by McDonnell on 7 July 1834, was quoted on page 40 of the Westminster Papers, 2 July 1877, and more details are sought:



From John Townsend:

‘In his will (National Archives, PROB 11/1855/197) Alexander McDonnell (/MacDonnell) identified as his brother Thomas MacDonnell, of Belfast, a barrister. The only Belfast barrister of that name at that time was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who, accordingly, has an entry in Alumni Dublinenses (edited by G.D. Burtchaell and T.U. Sadleir, second edition, Dublin, 1935).

On page 533, the entry for “McDonnell, Thomas” states that he was admitted on 7 November 1808, aged 15, a son of Thomas, a merchant, having been born in the county of Antrim; he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Spring 1813, was called to the Irish Bar in 1816 and later became a QC. The entry concludes by referring the reader to Frederic Boase’s Modern English Biography.

Boase (volume II, page 590), in an entry for “McDonnell, Thomas”, supplies the additional information that he was born in 1793, was a scholar at Trinity in 1811, became a QC on 1 July 1837 and a crown prosecutor for the county of Down, and died at Eglantine Hill, near Belfast, on 25 September 1878. The above information about the barrister, which I believe will be new to chess historians, builds on earlier research by James O’Fee (including Researching Alexander McDonnell Part 9) and proves that the father of the chessplayer, Alexander, was Thomas McDonnell (/MacDonnell), a merchant, and not Alexander MacDonnell, a Belfast physician.’


A further contribution from John Townsend:

‘Is anything at all known about the physical appearance of Alexander McDonnell, or about what he did before embarking upon his career as a merchant? A little information can perhaps be gleaned from a Royal Artillery drivers’ description book deposited in the National Archives at Kew (WO 69/654).

Folio 37 includes, on the fifth line, an entry for the driver Alexr McDonell [sic], who was enlisted by Lieutenant Clark on 1 February 1814, in Lisburn (Ireland), aged 15. He is described as five feet three inches in height, with a swarthy complexion, brown hair and blue eyes, having been born in Belfast, in the county of Antrim. He had no trade or calling, and was first mustered in the 7th Battalion, posted to Troop “B”. He was discharged on 28 February 1817 in Ireland.

Was this driver the celebrated chessplayer? His name, age and place of birth are all plausible, but would one not expect the son of a merchant to join the army as an officer?

In C.N. 10662 the father of the chessplayer was identified as Thomas McDonnell (/MacDonnell), a merchant. James O’Fee, in his article Still Researching Alexander McDonnell 2010: Part 4, cited a death notice in the Belfast News Letter announcing that Mr Thomas M’Donnell, a merchant of Belfast, had died on 17 January 1809.

The website Findagrave reports a memorial in Knockbreda Cemetery, Belfast to a Thomas McDonnell who died on that date.

The same memorial also records Mary McDonnell (1767-98), the wife of Thomas. From this one might infer that the chessplayer’s mother died at approximately the time, i.e. 1798, when, his own 1835 burial record suggests, he was born. The possibility arises of her death in child-birth. It may also be concluded that Alexander McDonnell became an orphan in 1809, following his father’s death, and in those circumstances a spell as a driver in the Royal Artillery becomes less difficult to envisage. Meanwhile, more evidence is needed to determine whether the young soldier in the record book became the man who was later famous as the adversary of Labourdonnais.’


John Townsend writes:

‘The following review of William Greenwood Walker’s A Selection of Games of Chess, actually Played in London by the late Alexander McDonnell, Esq., appeared in the Metropolitan Magazine, October 1836, page 46. The article is also in large measure a tribute to Alexander McDonnell, who had recently died.

“When we read this title we were struck with consternation at the word ‘late’, for it was but a few short months ago that we ourselves contended with Mr M’Donnel, certainly with more profit than success. Alas! it is no odds now what odds he gave us then, for death, too truly, makes all things even. However, we cannot – it would be injustice to refrain from bearing our testimony to the gentlemanly deportment, the urbane manners, and the high intellect of this first of English chessplayers. The evenness of his nature was singular; – he had neither the proud reserve of success, nor the moroseness of disappointment. He could not but be conscious of his superiority, but he wore it with the most unpretending air of good-humour that we ever beheld. He was very unlike many of his contemporaries, greedy of the paltry gain of the stakes, fearful to play with a competitor of approximating excellence, or sullen and taciturn in his manners. We are sorry to say that the besetting sin of some, a few, of the principal chessplayers, was a want of suavity in the general tone of their manners, to those beneath them in skill supercilious, of their equals jealous, of those above them envious. But none of this could M’Donnel be, for he was, in the most lofty sense of the word, a gentleman. But to the work before us. The chessplaying world are much indebted to Mr Walker for putting these very excellent games upon record. In them the observer will see all the variations of the most scientific plans, – the long calculation, the sudden surprise, the well-concealed ambush. Many of the games are exquisite, both as to the skill of the attack and the defence; and we conceive nothing more likely to improve a student of chess than sitting down quietly and playing them over on the board, con amore, as they are set down in the work. Really, we recommend this volume to general acceptation.”

The writer of the review, Edward Howard (died 1841), was the sub-editor of the Metropolitan Magazine, in addition to being a novelist. He was a member of the Westminster Chess Club and was mentioned on page 3 of the Morning Post, 3 February 1835 in connection with the visit to the club of the Turkish Ambassador. Only a single game was played on the occasion, when “the Pacha’s secretary” beat Howard “in good style”. However, the latter was described as “a player to whom a first-rate can give a rook”.’


Latest update: 21 July 2019.

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